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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2009

A Halting, Episodic Progress

By Wendy Robbins

Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education

William G. Bowen, Martin A. Kurzweil & Eugene M. Tobin. Charlottesville, VA & London, UK: University of Virginia Press, 2005; 480 pp; ISBN: 0-8139-2350-6, hardcover $27.95 us; ISBN: 0-8139-2557-6, paper $18.95 us.
Former Princeton University president William Bowen and his coauthors highlight the complementarity of excellence and equity, dismis­sing as “shallow” the notion that the two ideals compete in a “zero-sum tradeoff.”

Winning an Outstanding Book Award from the Ame­rican Educational Research Association, their book de­fines excellence as “high achievement in meeting core objectives.” In higher education there are three: teaching, to educate large numbers of people to a high standard; civic service, to prepare citizens for the decision-making and leadership required for democracy; and research, to advance knowledge. Thus quality (educational outcomes) and quantity (numbers of students educated) count towards “excellence” and are “constantly interacting.”

International ratings of quality regularly place Ame­rican institutions in the foremost ranks (12 of the top 15), using such criteria of excellence as numbers of articles listed in the Science Citation Index and institutional affiliations of Nobel laureates. International rankings of tertiary educational attainment, however, measured as the percentage of a country’s population of 25- to 34-year-olds with post-secondary degrees, drop the United States to eighth place (39 per cent), putting Canada first (51 per cent) and Japan second (50 per cent).1

Within the U.S., a survey of public opinion on higher education commissioned by the Chronicle of High­er Education shows a similar dichotomy — Americans feel “very positively” about the quality of colleges and universities, but are more critical about access, with 80 per cent complaining about prohibitively high costs and 75 per cent disapproving of legacy admissions. They are evenly split over affirmative action for racialized minorities.

Part I of the book provides a historical timeline on the equity-excellence relationship from the days of America’s founding fathers with their republican dream, through the Revolution and the founding of the early universities (when well over half the population — women and minorities — were inadmissible and “learned” and “labouring” classes widely divided), to the post-World War II era and the Truman Commission on Higher Education, which rejected as “un-American” quotas limiting Jews and blacks, recommended a national program to remedy “sobering inequalities” between regions and identified higher education spending as an “investment” in “better human relationships, democracy and peace.”

In recent years, the authors note further positive developments such as closing gendered “achievement gaps” in math and science for 15-year-olds; big gains in women’s share of master’s degrees in business (41 per cent), MDs (43 per cent) and law degrees (47 per cent), and PhD parity. Other trends “many find wor­risome” include a five per cent decline (between 1972 and 2002) in the absolute number of doctorates awarded to U.S. citizens, with an especially steep decline in the phy­sical sciences and engineering, pa­r­ticularly for men.

The explanation the authors offer is “possible ‘crowding-out’ effects” caused by increased competition from “highly talented” foreigners and women. That the lucrative rewards of the marketplace might play a role in this shift in a period characterized by spectacular growth and innovation in science and technology — silicone chips, cell phones, genomics, the space station — is not explored. The term “crowding-out” conjures up a kind of professional swarming and it’s both misleading and judgmental. Women account for less than 30 per cent of doctorates in the physical sciences and less than 20 per cent in engineering. In fact, women’s chronic under-representation in science and engineering was the subject of a massive 2006 study led by Donna Shalala.2

Moreover, the U.S. has long relied on immigrant scientists, with Eastern Europeans and Germans playing a crucial role during and after World War II. If the internationalization of science has led to U.S. superiority, why, now, is it a problem? Post-9/11 paranoia? Because internationalization now has a different skin color and gender? Other factors? Bowen, Kurzweil and Tobin continue: “among recent (sci­ence and engineering) doctorate holders employed in academia, the percentage of white males has fallen dramatically, from 73 per cent in 1975 to 41 per cent in 2001.” 3

Isn’t this progress towards equity? To some it may seem like academic osteoporosis, a thinning of the old backbone of the professoriate. To others it may be a salutary transformation, part of a societal sea-change that can lead a minority stu­dent from first black editor of the Harvard Law Review to first African-American president.

The authors are on surer ground in their impressive statistical study of undergraduates from 19 “academically selective” colleges and universities. Using the Mellon Foundation’s College and Beyond database of more than 180,000 student records, they trace the effects of socioeconomic status (SES) on application patterns, admission decisions, enrollment choices, academic performance and post-college outcomes. SES is defined by family income and parental educational attainment.

Data show an over-representation of students from the top SES quartile — accounting for half rather than a quarter at “elite” institutions, and an under-representation of students from the lowest — 11 per cent. While 16.4 per cent of minority students are “first generation” attending col­lege, over a quarter (25.7 per cent) come from the bottom income quar­tile. The corresponding shares for non-minorities are much lower: 4.8 per cent “first generation” and 9.5 per cent bottom income. There are some gender differences, with black women more likely to come from the bottom income quartile than black men.

The majority of the lowest quartile SES students are white, for minority students on average make up only 12 to 13 per cent of this prestigious student population. While SAT scores “vary markedly” with family income and parental education, the study documents that the distribution of SAT scores is more closely correlated with race than with income.

Part II focuses on policy issues related to admissions preferences and financial aid, balancing the well-established “thumb on the scale” for recruited athletes, “legacies,” and under-represented minorities with the needs of students in the lowest SES quartile. While this group performs less well academically than their more advantaged peers in terms of average GPAs or top honours, they fare better than under-represented minorities, and both these groups outperform recruited athletes.

The authors make a cogent, well-documented case for income- or class-based affirmative action, which they do not advocate as a substitute for race-based programs, but rather as a complement. They conclude with Larry Summers’ always mem­orable words: “Increasing disparity based on parental position has ne­ver been anyone’s definition of the American dream.” Bowen et al. plan further research to expand their range of institutions and “to collect additional data pertaining to gender.” Diversifying the research team and adding qualitative research would also be helpful.

The book contains an Appendix, an essay by four other authors about equity and excellence at the University of Cape Town in post-apartheid South Africa, where inequality in access is not a minority problem and higher education has a moral mandate to foster national “development” and facilitate social mobility, yet where excellence and equity are often seen as “separate imperatives” and the redress of historic wrongs as a challenge to “deeply held views on the identity of the university.” This case study is a poignant reminder that serving narrow vocational objectives has never been the whole story of higher education.

Wendy Robbins is a professor of English at the University of New Brunswick, Fred­ericton, and coordinator of its women’s studies program and former chair of CAUT’s Women’s Committee. She is also one of a group of eight academics from across Canada who reached a negotiated
settlement in 2006 at the Canadian Human Rights Commission to improve equity in the Canada Research Chairs program — an agreement she says is more honoured in the breach than the observance.

1. Organization for Economic Development. Education at a Glance 2004 (Paris, OECD),
Tables A3.1–4. Available online at

2. Donna Shalala and the Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering (Washington: National Academies Press, 2006). PDF executive summary available online at

3. Thomas B. Hoffer, et al. Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities: Summary Report 2002 (Chicago: National Opinion Research Center, 2003), Table 5.